R v PEMBERTON BILLING: The Black Book Case

Julian Burnside

The trial of Noel Pemberton Billing MP for criminal libel in May 1918 was described at the time, and for years afterwards, as the trial of the century. An overstatement probably, but on any view the trial had some extraordinary features: the defendant was a remarkable character, and the judge was almost equally remarkable in his own way; the evidence called by the defendant was utterly fantastic; and the cast of witnesses included Lord Alfred Douglas, the love and nemesis of Oscar Wilde.

The prosecution of Pemberton Billing had its origins in the conditions which existed in England in early 1918. The great war was still deadlocked: the appalling battles of Ypres and Passchendaele had only just ended, and the huge cost had not brought any closer the prospect of peace. There was some sympathy for the idea that traitors within were weakening England’s resolve. Casement had been tried only 18 months earlier. And the name of Oscar Wilde was still reviled in polite Society.

Noel Pemberton Billing was the independent MP for East Hertfordshire. He was a brilliant and quixotic character who held extreme right-wing views, which found a sympathetic audience in the climate of the times. He had founded a journal called Imperialist (shortly afterwards renamed Vigilante) in which, on 26 January 1918, he published an article which alleged the existence of the Black Book. This was a book said to contain the names of 47,000 English men and women who were allegedly homosexuals. German agents, it said, were exploiting these 47,000 to “propagate evils which all decent men thought had perished in Sodom and Lesbia (sic)”.

The article drew no response.

In February 1918 J.T Grein was to present 2 private performances by Maud Allan of Salome – public performance was still forbidden by the Lord Chamberlain. The first edition of the Vigilante (16 February 1918) included the following paragraph:

The Cult of the Clitoris

To be a member of Maud Allan’s private performance in Oscar Wilde’s Salome one has to apply to a Miss Valetta of 9 Duke Street, Adelphi, W.C. If Scotland Yard were to seize the list of these members I have no doubt they would secure the names of several thousand of the first 47,000.

To suggest publicly that Maud Allan was lesbian was, in 1918, sufficiently serious to warrant a prosecution for criminal libel. (3 books which contain accounts of the trial and which were published in 1936, 1951 and 1953 respectively, treat the paragraph as too scandalous and offensive to print in full). The trial before Mr Justice Darling began on 29 May 1918 and lasted 6 days (compare Casement’s trial for treason, which ran 3 days). The prosecution was led by Ellis Hume-Williams KC, with Travers Humphreys.

Pemberton Billing acted for himself. He began by asking Darling J to disqualify himself. The judge had a reputation for quick wit, and his clever remarks on the Bench were famous, but not universally acclaimed. Pemberton Billing pointed out that he had, as a member of parliament, criticized the judge for “the atmosphere of levity which your Lordship has frequently introduced into cases you have tried”. He said he would not receive a fair trial from the judge he had criticized so publicly. Mr Justice Darling replied that he had never noticed the criticism, and that “the fact that you take an unfavourable view of me can be no reason why I should not try your case, because by the same process you might exhaust every judge on the bench. People cannot choose the judges who shall try their cases …”

Pemberton Billing’s plea of justification was supported by particulars which included the assertion that Salome was

“a stage play by OscarWilde, a moral pervert … an open representation of degenerated sexual lust, sexual crime, and unnatural passions …
The German authorities, in furtherance of their hostile designs upon this country, have … compiled a list of men and women … in this country with a record of their alleged moral and sexual weaknesses … which would render such persons easy victims of pressure, and enable them … under fear of threats of exposure to be forced into courses of conduct agreeable to the wishes of … Germany”

The course of the prosecution evidence was relatively uneventful. Maud Allan gave evidence, in which she defended the artistic merit of Salome. This did not endear her to the jury, or to the judge who clearly shared the prevailing view that Wilde’s talent had been much overrated. Pemberton Billing cross-examined her to the effect that she had a brother who had been convicted of a double sex-murder in America, and that she was therefore a sexual pervert. (The link remains as obscure now as it was then).

Then the defence case began. Pemberton Billing called Eileen Villiers, who said she had seen the Black Book in the possession of Prince William of Weid, Mpret (ruler) of Albania since 1913. She said that the list of names included Mr Justice Darling, Mr and Mrs. Asquith, and Lord Haldane … where upon the judge ordered her to leave the witness box. He rebuked Pemberton Billing for his questions, saying: “I have not the least objection to your having asked the one about myself, but I am determined to protect other people who are absent.”

Then Captain Harold Sherwood Spencer was called. Reading an account of his evidence, it is clear he was certifiably mad. He had written the 2 articles. He gave an account of his extraordinary adventures as ADC to the Mpret of Albania, followed by the circumstances in which his attempts to produce proof of his claims had been systematically thwarted. It was a magnificent, if impenetrable, edifice of paranoid self-delusion.

He was followed by various medical experts who offered views about the link between immoral literature and sexual perversion. None of them had seen the play, but thought playing in it would pervert Maud Allan’s character. Likewise the dramatic critics, who were able to say with confidence that the play was an evil and corrupting influence, although they had not seen it performed. (It might be added in their defence that this seems to be an essential skill of critics, that they can criticize without seeing or hearing the object of their attack).

Then came Lord Alfred Douglas. By then 48 years old, the man Wilde had called Bosie was savage in his attack on Wilde as a man and as a writer. He said Wilde was “… the greatest force for evil that has appeared in Europe in the past 350 years …”. He criticized Salome as “a most pernicious and abominable piece of work”. (It seems that his 312-page autobiography, published in 1914 and filled with criticism of Wilde and justification of himself, was not enough to slake his thirst for revenge). He attacked counsel for the prosecution for his conduct of the case, and when the judge rebuked him for this, he attacked the judge for his conduct of this and previous trials in which the witness had been involved. Douglas’ conduct in court was so troublesome that the judge ordered him to leave, which he did. He came back for his hat, literally: he had left it on his seat in court!

Pemberton Billing’s closing address was a polemical diatribe which focused on the link between Salome, the Black Book, and England’s inability to prevail on the Western Front. Hume-Williams’ closing address concentrated on the libel, which had scarcely been answered by the defence. Its effect must have been diminished by the frequent interruptions from Pemberton Billing, despite warnings from the judge.

The judge’s summing up was likewise interrupted: by Pemberton Billing, who was warned repeatedly; by Lord Alfred Douglas, who was removed from the court; and by Captain Spencer, who was also removed.

It took the jury half an hour to reach a verdict of acquittal. This was greeted with great acclaim from Pemberton Billing’s supporters in court.

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Pemberton Billing continued his strange career as parliamentarian, inventor and litigant. His political prominence faded after the armistice deprived his ultra-nationalist views of their earlier appeal. With the benefit of a clever mind and an inherited fortune, he founded Pemberton-Billing Limited to produce his “Supermarine” aircraft. The company later produced the Spitfire fighter plane. He invented a combined heating and cooking unit, which was shown at the Westminster Homes Exhibition a few months after the criminal libel trial. He designed the Phantom camera system, an example of which sold at Christies for 147,000 pounds in 1995. And he founded the World Record company, which developed a long playing, constant surface-speed record player to compete with the Edison phonograph; it was able to hold 10 to 100 times as much audio material as the then current 78s. The technology was complex and did not prevail.

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It seems improbable in the extreme that there exists any connection between this remarkable trial and the Esplanade Hotel in St Kilda. In fact, in 1923 Pemberton Billing set up the first Australian disc recording plant, under the name of World Record (Australia) Limited, and an associated radio station. The plant was in Bay Street Brighton, and was the base of radio 3PB. Pemberton Billing established 3PB for the purpose of broadcasting the company’s recordings. It was a limited “manufacturers’ licence”, a sort which was only available during the first few years of wireless broadcasting in Australia.

The first recording made by World Record (Australia) was released in July 1925, and featured Bert Ralton’s Havana Band, then performing at the Espy.

Pemberton Billing died, virtually forgotten, in 1948. The Phantom camera is no more than a museum piece. The constant speed gramophone record is no more. But the Espy survives, and still provides a stage for comedians and musicians. Currently at the Espy you can hear such groups asMav and Her Majesty’s Finest, Ruby Doomsday, Pout, Nude Lounge, and The American Public. Bert Ralton would be proud.
Julian Burnside